Extended Thoughts: Another Year

 

 

Mike Leigh’s tenth Feature film, assembled in the usual fashion of character and screenwriting collaboration with his actors, is very much his typical take on the various work-a-day folk in Britain. But then again, glancing at his C.V. you will see that his films which consist of mainly people talking and talking and talking have won pretty much every major world cinema prize imaginable, BAFTA, Oscar, Palm D’Or, Golden Lion, you name it, so the run-of-the-mill Mike Leigh film is pretty fucking excellent. Of the nearly 50 features I caught at this years edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, Another Year comes out on top. I laughed, I cried, I begged for more drinking, smoking and gardening with these regular folks, some of whom have found out the secret of partaking of life’s joys, and others on the rock-bottom pit of despair. But mostly, the ritual of social behavior, how the tone and the attitude of the conversation is equally telling, perhaps moreso, than the content. People love to talk, but when they actually ‘communicate’ that is when the warm and fuzzy thing we call intimacy is achieved.

Remember Sally Hawkin’s effervescent and indomitable Poppy from Leigh’s previous film Happy-Go-Lucky? She does not appear in Another Year, but in a way, this film feels like a spiritual sequel. Imelda Staunton, who played Vera Drake in yet another Mike Leigh film, opens the picture as the Anti-Poppy, a woman so crushed by life and bitterness that she cannot even articulate it to her therapist in the sterile surroundings of some sort of anonymous medical interior. But we do not follow this woman, we follow her therapist, Gerri (Ruth Sheet) who is quite happily married to Terry (Jim Broadbent). While not working their upscale professional jobs (he’s a Geologist) they spend most of their time in their vegetable garden allotment, or cooking the fruits of their labor into bubbly and vibrant meals that you can almost smell through the movie screen. Gerri takes has equal parts compassion and pity for her secretarial co-worker, Mary (Leslie Manville). A bit oblivious, a bit overbearingly pathetic, Mary is a long-in-the-tooth divorcee that never managed to move on with life or find an acceptable companion, you can tell her personality immediately by the look on her face and her frazzled hair. She has never came close to the soul-mate situation between Tom and Gerri (yes the ironic Hanna-Barbera cartoon gag is acknowledged in the film) and seems to be magnetically drawn as if to absorb some of their bliss by osmosis and sympathy. They are very generous to invite her over to their place for a good meal as often as they do, and part of me does not wonder a bit if they at an unconscious level, relish showing off their happiness. Not a malicious thing, they are who they are, and celebrate it in their own way, daily. The couple seems to have a large number of satellite sad-sacks that revolve around their little piece of heaven. They remain generous with their time and support. Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight, the man with the ‘most boring job in England’ from 1994’s Naked) is eating and drinking himself into an early grave, and probably all the more happy to be there because he simply cannot relate to anything not from his youth; Tom’s nearly catatonic brother, Ronnie and his explosive son Carl define the poor and disenfranchised set in the UK, both are walking dysfunction in their own way. Their son Joe seems to be the apple that has not fallen too far from the tree. He is a single, but confident and mid-level immigration lawyer. Good things will come to him eventually, and he has the right attitude (probably learned from Mum and Dad) but he does feel a bit awkward when Mary makes intimate and suggestive passes over one too many glasses of wine during his parents backyard BBQ or evening dinner parties.

Another Year is very much a character driven movie, no surprise there, but what makes it transcend is that it wonderfully articulates the various rhythms of conversation. There are times when the dialogue is so fast in-sync that it feels written by a happy-go-lucky doppleganger of David Mamet. Tom and Gerri and Joe banter and riposte amoungst themselves by the comfortable and habit of long years in a warm home. Their tone and melody speak volumes, against the comparative silence of Ronnie or the sad depression of Ken. But really, the star of the show is Mary and her frantic and desperate mess of social tics. She is oblivious to others in the room as often as she barges in late and in need of an ear. Paraphrasing the gambler’s creed, ‘if you cannot spot the lonely disaster of a human being at the table, you are probably it.’ Mary would lose everything, probably several pints of blood to boot, if she ever took up gambling. The films structure informs her character as much with Imelda Staunton’s scowling vignette at the beginning as it does with the desperate to foolish to catastrophic trajectory of Mary’s little-red-car purchase. The symbol of the freedom and Mary’s ticket to the surrogate happiness of a country vacation – a shot at the earthy pleasantry enjoyed by her friends – plays out in the most painful, yet completely inevitable way. A late act encounter with Ronnie (Leigh’s equivalent of an ‘in-action’ set-piece) proves that Mary is as much a bad mimic as she is anything else. While Mary frantically attempts to replicate the easy-going comfort and companionship of her charitable friends, when she is with Ronnie, she becomes silent and forlorn and almost physically ages on screen.

Nearly all of the actors are on their fourth or fifth go around with Mike Leigh and they seem to know what they are doing, but maybe with all this practice, they have brought things to some new high-watermark. I do not know if Leigh and company will ever come up with a more complicated, angry and pathetic character as David Thewlis in Naked, but Mary comes damn close, and the film captures Leslie Manville’s fearlessly riveting performance with an unblinking eye. Mary may spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fool others around her that she is on the upswing, but Gerri and Tom and the director and the audience can sense the truth even as Mary almost, but not quite, deludes herself. It is a small but profoundly truthful observation executed better than the director has ever done. More than Naked, more than All or Nothing, more than Secrets & Lies. Another Year, for all its down-to-earth normalcy, everyday living, and casual flow of its seasons is the crown-jewel for a director who has an array of masterpieces.

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For me the top three films of the year consist of what some may deem losers or unlikable personalities. From Roger in Greenberg to Mary here and Dean in Blue Valentine there is complexity to character that is so refreshing, you are uncomfortable watching them interact with their surroundings, sometimes its funny, sometimes its painful.

I have been reading John Dewey's Art as Experience, and while I find him quite articulate, the language of academia does rub me the wrong way occasionally. Still he does get at what I look for in art… to roughly paraphrase: rather than confine art to a standard removed from your day-to-day life, (The Parthenon as a classical piece of Fine Art), art is best when it builds upon what you live through, when it trawls the depth of the familiar to make something that agitates you emotionally more so than intellectually. I am not a formalist, the kind of formal conceits that get people off don't usually work for me because I feel they are removed in this way, we are classifying animals in a zoo rather than experiencing them in the wild. The form serves substance, and its the substance when familiar to your life experience that, at least for me, is what I want most from film, and all art for that matter. In these three films I see the familiar, they are constructs but with an attempt towards immediacy of recognition (you don't need a surrogate formal conceit to make the point).

I used the word nuance a lot in my reviews of these movies and that is what, to me, sets them apart… they take special care to allow the characters to be embodied, not plot-movers, but intrinsically worthy by virtue of their being. There isn't much arc to them, and I am fine with that. To me there is more truth and value in Mary, Roger and Dean than a thousand Citizen Kanes.

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